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Book review: Ron Chepesuik's Sergeant Smack

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Sergeant Smack: The Legendary Lives and Times of Ike Atkinson, Kingpin, and His Band of Brothers by Ron Chepesiuk (Strategic Media, 422 pages, $22.95)

Writer Ron Chepesiuk, of Rock Hill, has gained a reputation as a great crime reporter, whether it's about Colombian drug cartels, Miami gangsters, or the Trafficantes. His new book, Sergeant Smack is a fascinating look at a bit of underworld history – and Vietnam era history – that deserves to be more well-known.

The film American Gangster was the first time most Americans heard of the African-American gangster Frank Lucas, originally of Greensboro, N.C. Lucas built a crime empire in the 1970s, largely based on Southeast Asian heroin, a drug Lucas claimed to have routinely smuggled into the U.S. in the coffins of American soldiers killed in Vietnam. Chepesiuk's new book introduces us to Ike Atkinson, from Goldsboro, N.C., released from prison in 2007 after serving a 32-year term. Although Atkinson was portrayed in American Gangster as a relatively unimportant cousin of Lucas, Atkinson says he's no relation to Lucas, but was actually the person who set up the massive heroin smuggling operation in Thailand which supplied Lucas with heroin the whole time. The Drug Enforcement Agency agrees with Atkinson's account. And the drug coffins? Atkinson says it's just another thing Lucas lied about, along with claiming that he had set up the smuggling operation.

Atkinson, a former U.S. Army Master Sergeant, moved to Bangkok in 1968 and, from there, started and ran the biggest drug smuggling enterprise of the 1970s. He was extraordinarily well organized, employed other African American former soldiers, never carried a gun, and never gave allegiance to the Mafia. He and his organization smuggled heroin into the U.S. through military bases, at the rate of around 1,000 pounds per year. Lucas was one of Atkinson's chief "clients," but did not set up the organization itself, contrary to his accounts, which were largely swallowed hook line and sinker by the press.

Chepesiuk is a formidable researcher, and here he's outdone himself, revealing details of the cat and mouse game played by Atkinson and the DEA, as well as astonishing accounts of how the man's organization worked. The book is written in a direct, journalistic style that, although nothing flashy, seems more suited to such a hard-nosed investigative work. In any case, it's definitely recommended.

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